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Objective Carotid plaques (CP) are predictive of acute coronary syndrome in patients with rheumatoid arthritis (RA), suggesting that atherosclerotic plaques in these patients are vulnerable. The objective of our study was to characterize vulnerability of CP in patients with RA compared to a control population, and between RA patients with different levels of disease activity.
Methods Ultrasound examination of carotid arteries was performed in 152 patients with RA and 89 controls. CP echolucency was evaluated by the Gray-Scale Median (GSM) technique. Lower GSM values indicate higher vulnerability of plaques. CP characteristics were compared between RA patients with active disease and in remission, and between patients and controls. All analyses were performed with adjustment for confounding factors (sex, age, smoking, and blood pressure). Poisson regression analysis was used for count data, mixed modeling for GSM and area per plaque, and analysis of covariance for minimum GSM value per patient.
Results Patients with RA more frequently had CP (median 2, range 0, 4) compared with controls (median 1, range 0, 3; p < 0.001), after adjustment for age and sex. Patients with active RA disease according to the Clinical Disease Activity Index (CDAI) had lower median GSM (p = 0.03), minimum GSM (p = 0.03), and a larger CP area (although the latter finding was not significant; p = 0.27), compared with patients with RA in remission. These findings were not confirmed for other disease measures (Simplified Disease Activity Index, Disease Activity Score-28, C-reactive protein, erythrocyte sedimentation rate).
Conclusion Patients with RA had more CP compared with controls and patients in CDAI remission, and controls had more stable CP than patients with active disease; these findings point to the importance of achieving remission in RA.